Pull for the Shores: And Other Water Stories
In late October our much beloved Baptist Pastor Mark will fully immerse in the historic Brookfield church lukewarm baptistery three excited “candidates.” (As one pastor said, “we want to baptize them, not cook them.”) Baptism, in the religions I am familiar with , a defining moment in a person’s spiritual life, as well as an affirmation of the historic role that churches have played in the history of this great nation.
For over 200 years baptismal services have been conducted in many different places, at all times of the year. One particularly popular place is the fairly shallow but often swiftly moving water of Beaver Creek north of the highway bridge, at the west end of this rural village.
One of the most recent baptisms in Beaver Creek was done by a younger , recently minted Pastor Mark.
It had been an especially cold spring, and even in mid-June the fast flowing Beaver Creek, while devoid of ice floes, was nevertheless icy cold—as the teeth chattering pastor with blue fingers quickly found out. I can still see him leaving the shore and sinking into waist high, ice cube cold water. A young girl was fully immersed, arose and while heading for shore slipped on a stone and out of the minister’s grip. All the participants quickly headed towards warmth and dry clothes. (Some time later I came across an ad for “baptism gloves with rubberized fingertips so a child or adult won’t slip out of the pastor’s hands.”
A local yarn of a similar cold water baptism many years ago. The water was frigid and turbulent with ice chunks in the stream and along the banks. A rather large lady was fully dunked. Between her weight, now heavy clothes the pastor lost his grip. In the fast-moving water she slipped under some ice and swiftly was swept downstream. A rapidly mobilized search party was unsuccessful—until the spring melt. The lady was fully immersed, but a little too long. (A frog man’s suit may not have saved the above lady, but skinny dipping apparel is not really recommended either.)
On another occasion, in the mid-19 th century a man named William became a baptismal candidate (or victim?). As a fully immersed William came out of the frigid water, a friend yelled asking William if the water was cold. “No, not a bit,” he replied. The pastor said to a helping elder “take him back and put him under again, for he is still lying.” (William had a pre-existing tendency for telling things that literally wouldn’t hold water.)
Another young fidgety and impatient Baptist pastor, while waiting for a candidate to change into proper immersion attire, asked a deacon to sing acapella a filler hymn. He sang the old familiar and now appropriate old hymn “Pull for the Shore.” I suspect, over the years, many dripping people have headed towards the shore as fast as they could.
Winter baptisms were very common over the years. In fact, there was a wide assortment of dunking venues in this community: streams, ponds, lakes, backyard swimming pools—and, yes, even in churches. In the 1830’s Baptist elder Holland Turner was reported to have baptized more than 40 people in a short period of time; hopefully not all were in the winter time, such as in January 1838, when he
baptized John Hibbard.
(I should point out at this point that both my beautiful wife Lois—in a country Lutheran church in South Dakota—and her husband in the commodious confines of the New Hartford Presbyterian Church were baptized as infants, with a few drops of water sprinkled on their forehead. ( In my case, my parents and
minister wanted to catch me before I escaped.)
Today our church baptistry no longer leaks, as in the past. Today a slightly older and mature Pastor Mark can fully immerse candidates while only wetting part of one arm. I suspect he likes this much better than the shivering waters of Beaver Creek.
I’m sure Pastor Mark is always relieved to have baptismal ceremonies go without a hitch—or leak? On one occasion my beautiful wife and organist noted that the baptism water was very frigid on the Sunday morning when six candidates were to be immersed. A heater had failed to heat the water brought in the night before via a garden hose, from the Fellowship Hall. Lois formed a hot water bucket brigade of early arrivals and by ceremony time six unsuspecting candidates were immersed in warm water…thanks to the fast thinking of the lovely organist.
It should be noted that our baptistery is under the choir loft, behind the pulpit. A critical musical wag, not in this church, when the choir music was less than inspirational suggested, by a hidden lever, there would be a disappearing choir into the hidden depths below.
In a similar rural church curtains were strung up on wires, one as a back drop, and a section curtained off for the men to dress, and another for the women. The young pastor was just out of seminary and the first two people he ever baptized would be an elderly man and a quite heavy lady.
As the ceremony began, two deacons came forward to assist the pastor and escorted the elderly man down the wooden step into the baptistry where the pastor waited. The two deacons helped the dripping senior up the stairs and back behind the curtains to change clothes.
No one thought to help the young pastor with the heavy woman. Excitedly, and unescorted she stepped into the baptistry onto the first step. The wooden steps were very slippery. She slipped and promptly sat down on the top step. Then one by one she bounded down into the bottom of the baptistery in a sitting position. Screaming and bouncing down the wet stairs, she reached out to grasp the nearest thing available, that happened to be the curtains. So down into the baptistery came the men and women’s dressing rooms. It’s claimed (unverified) you could hear her screams a mile away.
To the bulging eyes of the entire congregation came the partly dressed elderly gentleman. He had just put on his white long johns and was pulling up his trousers. He dropped his pants and stood paralyzed—staring with saucer sized eyes at the equally shocked congregation. The elderly man grabbed a nearby chair and held it in front of him.
Since it was an evening baptism, a fast thinking deacon turned off the church lights, thinking five minutes would be sufficient for the old man to make himself decent. It wasn’t. The elderly man was still standing in his long underwear, protecting himself (from what?) with the chair.
At the same time the heavy set lady was gurgling, bubbling and saying many unkind Christian words in the bottom of the baptistery, all tangled up in curtains that had fallen down around her. The young pastor, in a state of comatose shock, was probably reassessing his decision to enter the ministry. He certainly hadn’t counted on dealing with a hysterically screaming woman whose main concern was not drowning.
The next time you hear the old song “Pull for the Shore” you’ll understand there’s probably a lot of water stories in its germination. But these are only the musings of a simple country man.
Hobie Morris of Brookfield is a simple country man.